this is not archaeology

The Ambient Century drags on, too long and too dry but occasionally interesting despite itself. I feel like the author took the widest possible definition of “ambient” and then stretched it some more just to include more artists in the book — to make it seem like ambient music had a continuous evolution throughout the 20th century, an unbroken lineage.

While it didn’t cover the entire history of rock & roll in a comprehensive way, it certainly went over a lot more of it than seemed relevant. If I had to distill it into something more coherent, I would say that:

  • Brian Eno, who invented the term “ambient music”, was of course involved in rock too as a musician and producer.
  • A lot of 60s rockers came from more of an art perspective than, say, the blues-Gospel-jazz melange that became 50s rock, rockabilly and doo-wop. More than I ever realized, a lot of them were into Cage, Stockhausen, etc. and wanted to shake things up…
  • …which meant electronic instruments like the Mellotron and early Moogs and ARPs, multitrack studio techniques and tape manipulation, guitar FX, experiments in song structure, borrowing from Near Eastern cultures.

But doing all of the acid, playing a sitar solo, recording 17 tracks of overdubbed strings backwards, slapping a Binson Echorec on every guitar part and saying “cranberry sauce” doesn’t make your music ambient.

I’ll admit though — my parents’ Beach Boys and even Captain and Tenille albums did feed my own interest in synths as a kid. It’s just that there was also an unbroken line of electronic and experimental musicians outside of rock, and I grew up with those too.

(Side note: “Good Vibrations” didn’t feature a theremin as is widely claimed, even in this book. It was the “Electro-Theremin” (later called the Tannerin when a second one was finally built in 1999), invented and performed by trombonist Paul Tanner, which was played with a slider. It’s an important distinction because it works completely differently.)

The book progressed on to progressive rock, with the important note that it was often called “space rock” or even “techno rock” at the time and that not all of it was terrible and self-indulgent. And I’ll agree that Pink Floyd, sort of a bridge between psychedelic and progressive music but also sort of its own thing at times, did manage to approach closer to ambient music at times than most of the other examples given. (Pink Floyd was indeed another frequent childhood listen, as was the Alan Parsons Project.)

And then the book reaches Krautrock, which certainly is closer to the mark, and finally Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre and the like, and I breathed a sigh of relief because maybe now when the book says “ambient” it will actually mean ambient or something like it.

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